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Jonathan's Picks

by Saunders, George

This book, based on a class George Saunders teaches at Syracuse University about the Russian short story masters, is a thought-provoking and engaging deep dive into seven short stories by Chekov, Tolstoy, Gogol, and Turgenev. Intended for writers (and with some great exercises for the aspiring author) it eschews the stuffy academic voice in favor of a direct and insightful style that's accessible to anyone with an interest in literature. Saunders is perhaps a little too convinced of the moral power of literature to change lives and the world (I can't help but think of Vonnegut's comparison of the power of anti-Vietnam War literature to a dropped custard pie), but his enthusiasm for his subject is infectious and it inspired me to finally read more of Tolstoy's and Chekov's short stories, which was a real highlight of my reading last year. If you enjoy Saunders' voice and perspective (as I do), we also have Saunders' new short story collection Liberation Day as well as his novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which was my favorite book of the year back in 2017.

by Carroll, Lewis

Often thought of as a druggy fantasy or turned into a psuedo-horror or even (by Disney) into an epic battle of good-and-evil, but none of those ideas are really accurate. This is firstly a virtuosic and hilarious demonstration of Carroll's love of illogic and language, and secondly a portrayal of Wonderland: a world that is stranger than you can imagine and which doesn't care about you very much at all. In that, it's the most realistic world in all of literature.

by Kuang, R. F.

This exquisitely imagined and beautifully written novel is my favorite that I've read so far this year. It conceives of a rich and unusual magic derived from the act of translation itself, and then uses that to examine the insidious and destructive effects of colonialism. That might sound a little dry, but in practice the book is visceral, angry, action-packed, and still somehow profoundly tender, especially in the portrayal of the friendship between the four characters at the heart of the novel.

I fully recommend you get on the wait list on Libby for this one. It's worth it.

This title is currently only available as an ebook via Libby or TNReads

by Vonnegut, Kurt

Vonnegut is one of my favorites. Cat's Cradle, with it's Bokonist philosophical meditations, the engrossing sci-fi conceit of Ice-9, and Vonnegut's wry humanism dripping off every page is my favorite.

by Borges, Jorge Luis

From Tlon to Pierre Menard, Borges gives us new worlds that reflect back our own world in ways that we have never seen them before. Along with Kafka, probably the greatest short story writer of all time.

by Calvino, Italo

Sweet, strange, and beautiful little gems. Every Calvino book is a gift.

This title is only available via Interlibrary Loan

by Bechdel, Alison

A great and heartbreaking memoir in comic book form. It tells the story of Alison Bechdel (whose name you might know because the Bechdel Test for cinema originated in an newpaper comic she wrote) and her youth growing up in a funeral home (the "fun home" of the title), her sometimes difficult relationship with her father, discovering her sexuality and coming out, the consequent revelation that her father was a closeted gay man, and the unresolved aftermath of his subsequent death. That might sound heavy, and it is at times, but it's also profoundly funny and humane and even universal somehow. It's also been adapted by Tesori and Kron into one of the best musicals in the last few years.

by Marquez, Gabriel Garcia

The greatest epic of magical realism, which is probably my favorite genre of novel. Dense, beautiful and profound.

by Nabokov, Vladimir

Look, this is a challenging work. Formatted as an epic poem with extensive endnotes (several times the length of the poem itself), and featuring a deeply unreliable narrator, with language that is among the most precise and gorgeous ever written in English, this one demands a lot of the reader. But the reward is a book that is startlingly weird, exciting, thought-provoking, and laugh out loud funny.

This title is only available via Interlibrary Loan

by Austen, Jane

My favorite Jane.

by Clarke, Susanna

Clarke's long-awaited follow-up to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is narrated by a deeply peculiar character who lives in an infinitely large mansion filled with strange sculptures and which seems to be slowly sinking into the sea. The world he describes is at first inscrutable but compelling, and over the course of this brief and beautiful novella becomes increasingly comprehensible (and teasingly intertextual) but stays just as dangerous and fascinating.

by Sachar, Louis

This, the Marx Brothers, Weird Al Yankovic, and Space Ghost Coast to Coast are the basis of my entire sense of humor.

This title is only available via Interlibrary Loan

by Le Guin, Ursula

It is a close call between this and The Dispossessed for my favorite Le Guin, and the fact that this is the fourth book in the Earthsea tetralogy would be a strike against it, but the way that it deconstructs the mythology of the world of the original trilogy (itself a deconstruction of a lot of high fantasy) is so thoughtful and lovely and kind and small and thorough, that I have to give the nod here.

This title is only available via Interlibrary Loan

by Miller, Madeline

I'm a little late to this one, but glad I finally made the time for it. In case you aren't already familiar, The Song of Achilles is a lovely and moving retelling of the life of Achilles from the perspective of Patroclus. It uses that perspective to reframe the Iliad into an epic and tragic love story. But it's not really the revisionist take you might expect from that pitch. No character is portrayed inconsistently with the Homeric texts. There is still considerable thematic overlap in the portrayal of hubris and arrogance as connected and contrasted with responsibility to your fellow man and the nature of heroism and how violence and power complicates all of that. And Miller never shies away from including the Gods and other mythological elements where they serve the story.

You could describe this as Homer fan fiction; it is after all expanding on an existing text primarily to dig deeper into a specific romantic pairing. But that description is far from pejorative: what we dismissively call fan-fiction is really just how culture worked (most of Shakespeare's stories had been told before) before we devalued artistic work and had to commoditize "originality." And if anything proves that fan fiction can be as artistically compelling, beautifully written and thematically rich as any other work, it's The Song of Achilles.

by Mccloud, Scott

This comic book guide to how comics work is more than a guide to one of the most interesting mediums of the 20th century, it's a treatise on how art works in general, and it rewired my brain when I first read it.

This title is only available via Interlibrary Loan

by Jackson, Shirley

Merricat is one of my favorite narrators in all of fiction.

This title is only available via Interlibrary Loan
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